Colonials, Merchants and Alabaster Vases: The Western Phoenician Aristocracy

Article excerpt


The image of the Phoenicians offered in the Odyssey (13,272; 14, 287 ff.; 15,415 ft.) is of robbers and slave-traders motivated only by profit, and it is an image that has been embraced over two centuries of western scholarship. The association between Phoenicians and trade is powerful and well established (Liverani 1998). According to Greek written sources (Herod. IV, 152; Diod. V, 35, 4-5; Strab. III, 2, 9) the main reason which led Phoenicians to found new settlements in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and Portugal was the search for metals (Figure 1). The 'trade paradigm', as this predominant view could be called, has been sustained by European archaeologists and historians: the archaeological data relating to Phoenician colonisation are explained in terms of trade, settlements are interpreted as production sites and their inhabitants as merchants. Current scholarship assumes that Phoenician and Greek merchants initiated relationships with Late Bronze societies in Sardinia, Etruria and Tartessos during the Archaic period, resulting in the creation of 'orientalised' aristocracies (Bernardini 1982; Bisi 1984; Torelli 1981:69 ft.; Bartoloni 1984; Rathje 1984; Aubet 1984). However, less attention has been given to the social context of the Phoenician colonisers themselves. We know that aristocracies existed in eastern Phoenician cities (Tsirkin 1990: 33) and it seems logical that they should be reproduced in the west. The purpose of this paper is to see how far this might be reflected in the archaeological evidence; and, in effect, many different productive activities and stratified social groups are revealed in a society that is by no means exclusively mercantile.


Literary evidence for a western Phoenician aristocracy

The existence of a social elite in Phoenician Levant is evidenced by some written sources. The treaty between the Assyrian king Asarhaddon and Ithobaal king of Tyre in an inscription dated to the early seventh century BC mentions a Tyrian king, as well as 'the men of the land of Tyre', as representing the city. It is significant that in the text these 'men', like the king, were able to own ships (Pettinato 1975:151 ff.). They could be interpreted as members of a higher social stratum who occupied the main religious and administration posts below the royal family (Tsirkin 1990:33 ff.) and directed sea traffic and long distance trade. Ezekiel's Against Tyre (Ezekiel 26: 16) and Isaiah in his Tyre Oracle (Isaiah 23: 2-8) mention 'sea princes' referring to the rich men who directed the economical activity of the town, and could be equated with the 'men of the land of Tyre'. This Tyrian elite has also been interpreted as consisting of 'private' merchants who initiated colonial expansion, independent of the royal palace (Bondi 1979, 1988a: 355-7; Aubet 1987). They can be seen as an 'aristocracy of merchants' with power and wealth based on trade (Bondi 1988b: 249).

The story of the foundation of Carthage by Queen Elisa (Just. XVIII: 4-6) shows that Elisa, who belonged to the royal dynasty, did not travel alone: a group of 'the main citizens' of Tyre accompanied her in the expedition. Classical tradition has transmitted the name of some of the high ranking companions: Bitias, commander of the Tyrian fleet (Serv., Ad Aen. I: 738) and Barcas, the ancestor of the famous Carthaginian family of the Barca (Sil. Ital., Punica I: 72-5). An inscribed gold medallion found in a rich Carthaginian grave at Douimes and dated to 725 BC has been interpreted as belonging to a person of aristocratic position, Yada'milk son of Pidiya (Krahmalkov 1981; Gras et al. 1991:174 ft.). These were forerunners of the later Carthaginian aristocracy whose existence is well attested (Gunther 1993).

A group of 'servants', once dependents of the Tyrian king Pygmalion, were also included in Elisa's expedition (Just. XVIII, 4, 12 ff.). These may have been slaves, or people with a dependent position like theger (Heltzer 1987), or free men like the 'sons of Tyre' mentioned in inscriptions (Tsirkin 1990: 33) or persons equivalent to the Tyrian 'men of the king', specialised personnel working for the palace (Tsirkin 1990: 34 ff. …